Ken and Billy
At 16, I figured I could live on my own. The vice principal of my high school disagreed. She called me into her office. She’d gotten a call from my aunt Leota, who reported that although I’d promised to stay with her and her husband Jimmy, my mom’s youngest brother, my whereabouts were unknown.
“I’ve got my own house,” I said.
“You can’t do that, Kenneth. The law says a student under 18 has to live with a guardian.”
“How about a roommate? I’ve got one.”
The vice principal rubbed her temples. “Go on,” she sighed, probably thinking I was doomed anyway from contact with Eric’s mother, whom the school people had labeled a drunk. “Just make peace with your aunt and uncle.”
Lying disturbed me. But there was no compromise with my aunt. Her rules were tyrannical compared to our family’s, and even those had gotten canceled by my dad’s heart attack, a year ago Christmas. Though my mom was no pushover. She was tough. You wouldn’t catch her weeping. The morning she announced that an ambulance had come while I slept and carried my dad away, she offered to take my cousin Steve and me out to breakfast then drop us by Singing Hills Golf Course, to give us a distraction while she made funeral arrangements.
Illustration with Ken and Eric
My mom was a rock. Over the past few years, she’d helped bury her father, sister, and two brothers. She was the one who’d always fed me, nursed me, brought home a paycheck every month, and covered the debts my dad’s several failed business ventures had accrued. But after that Christmas, she got plagued by headaches and became a hermit. Evenings she’d withdraw to her room and lie with a cool cloth on her forehead, listening to the Lakers, the Padres, or Dodgers. Even through the World Series, she hardly watched an inning. She preferred the dark and her radio.
The following week she stayed home from her job, teaching eighth-grade English. I tried to coax her to the doctor. She said he’d already given her pain pills. One afternoon I found her lying in a heap beside her bed. Breathing in shallow puffs. Her eyes were open and watery. Above the right one was a long gash, already scabbed over. I suspected a prowler had clubbed her and swiped her jewelry. She managed a goofy smile and mumbled that she must’ve fallen, and getting up had seemed too hard.
An ambulance carried her away. At Grossmont Hospital, somebody tapped her spine and found meningitis. The only doctor who’d talk to me gave her lousy odds.
If I were by nature decent, those six months my mother lay in the isolation wing of county hospital would’ve been grave and suppliant times. Being who I am, I spent many weekly allotments designated to food and bill-paying on liquor and gasoline.
I’d been granted a storybook life. I drove a two-door ’55 Chevy. My best friend and I lived alone in a three-bedroom house. School was optional. Days when the ocean beckoned, I could stop by the hospital at visiting hours, wash up and don a smock, spend a couple of minutes with my mom, and get her to sign absence slips. Eric didn’t need absence slips. If he’d told the attendance clerk he had bubonic plague, she’d have excused him rather than phone his mother to verify. People called Sylvia, she might hold them on the phone for an hour, ranting about their misdeeds.
The vice principal sent for me. Meeting me outside her office door, she touched my shoulder and nodded supportively, then waved me into her office. She closed the door and left me alone with a crew-cut fellow in a tweed coat. Leaning back in her desk chair, he sized me up, tested my nerves and said, “Let’s talk business.” He flashed his probation officer’s badge, recited a statute from the juvenile code, and asked why I wasn’t staying with my aunt and uncle.
I made excuses. He scowled. When he threatened to assign me to Hillcrest Receiving Home, I asked, “How’re you going to get me there?”
“We’ll manage,” he said smugly.
That evening I stopped by my aunt and uncle’s for dinner and to negotiate. But my aunt started chastising me.
A few days later, early evening while Eric and I lounged on the back patio, a police cruiser stopped out front. My Uncle Jimmy’s car pulled in behind it. As we’d planned in case of a raid, Eric ditched down the bank into the avocado grove. I was going to follow, but first I ran inside for my wallet and keys, so the police couldn’t confiscate them. I figured they’d at least ring the bell before trespassing. But they used Jimmy’s key. As they barged in, I was striding down the hallway past the bathroom. I dove into the bathtub. While they waited in the entry to let Jimmy call out for me, I silently closed the glass door. Their footsteps tromped and thudded on the carpet. Closet doors whooshed open and slammed. One cop sneezed and griped to the other about dust under the bed. Then while I lay wondering how long it’d take me to escape from the foster home, the front door banged shut. A minute later, the two cars pulled away.
Later I phoned and snapped at my Uncle Jimmy. He snapped back but finally said, “Hey, you want to stay there, give me a call every day at dinnertime, and when I stop by, don’t let me find any beer cans.”
“Deal,” I said.
I’ve got two pictures of Eric. The one that rated a full page in our senior-year annual. Keen blue eyes with thick lashes, freckles, and sandy hair, a chin square as Dick Tracy’s, an easy grin that would’ve wrongly convinced you he was loaded with confidence. And a snapshot somebody took in the locker room. Eric in a jock strap, beaming, his legs and arms spread as though he were greeting a familiar angel.
It must’ve been Eric who brought home Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. As winter approached, our friend Cliff, Eric, and I would sit by the fireplace sipping Gallo and take turns reading out loud. We admired Russell’s smirking arrogance, the gall of somebody who’d accuse Christ of counting people vipers simply because they didn’t like his preaching. We delighted in his arguments that Christianity was the principal enemy of moral progress in the world. Dismiss Christ, trust ourselves, we’d find the solution. Simple.
After a couple of Russell’s books, Eric brought home Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche, a strangely enchanting poet.
Zarathustra claimed that some of us could become supermen. First, our spirits would need to brave the desert like camels, forsaking our past, our heritage, all the values of the little people. That done, we’d each metamorphose into a lion and proceed to slay the great dragon called Thou Shalt. After burying the dragon, the lion would die and resurrect as a child, the infant superman, innocent and forgiving, a new beginning, a game, a sacred “Yes.” Then, we could learn to will our own will and begin conquering the world.
Cliff and his brother Billy were a year apart. They were North Dakotans, wiry and reticent as cowboys. Their mother fed, railed at, and worried over Eric and me as if we belonged to her. She was a blessing. A Catholic, like Eric’s mom. My parents were lukewarm Christian Scientists. None of us had known religion like our friend Henry’s family practiced.
Henry, his folks, a brother, and four lovely sisters shared a tiny house down the hill from mine. They were immigrants from Finland. They had a sauna and bathed together. Naked. I attended church with them in hopes of appearing so upright I’d get an invitation. They could squeeze me in between Ansa and Varpu. But their mother discerned the truth. She spotted demons in me. She saw demons everywhere and would call on the Holy Ghost to protect her. Possessed by the Holy Ghost, she’d go searching for Henry, find him in the pool hall, and chase him out, waving her arms like a Mixmaster.
On Friday nights she attended worship meetings in a rustic hall in Bostonia. It was surrounded by a dirt parking lot and eucalyptus trees.
Henry and I had gone there to sit in my car and laugh at the holy rollers. One time Eric came along. We brought a couple of six-packs. We arrived a half-hour late, parked in the first row closest to the building. The parking lot was dark, the meeting hall bright.
Eric sat up front with me. Henry sprawled over the backrest, blowing smoke at us, pointing out his favorites. Like a fat woman two seats to the right of his mother. Once she got shaking, Henry claimed, all that meat picked up its own momentum and would quiver until morning if somebody didn’t hold it still. He informed us that some of these faithful would flee the church, spend weeks or months carousing, land in the drunk tank, and finally run back, fall on their knees. “Chickenshits,” Henry snarled. “Haven’t got the guts to face real life.”
We couldn’t hear the message. When the sermon concluded, the people sang a few hymns, then stood for a couple of minutes of prayer before the spirit moved them. The preacher, a gaunt fellow with curly, box-shaped hair, threw up his arms. Half the flock followed his lead. Others swayed sideways or back and forth, teetering, hollering. The fat woman dropped to her knees and undulated as if she’d fallen into the grip of a vibrator belt. Her head thrashed in circles. Beside her, Henry’s mother flailed her arms like a panicked swimmer. The tenor of voices rose in volume and pitch and gathered an eerie harmony.
Henry bounced on the seat behind us, guffawing, slugging the backrest. Sparks from his cigarette showered us. I sat gaping like a dimwit at the zoo.
“Let’s get out of here,” Eric said. “I feel like I’ve been watching somebody go to the bathroom.”
Henry fell back into his seat, chortling. Since the motor didn’t start at the first crank, I pumped the gas and when it fired, it raced. Through the window I noticed the preacher loping toward the door. My tires spun in the dirt and then grabbed. By the time he got outside, the preacher must’ve only seen my Chevy’s rear end turning onto the street. He couldn’t have noticed Henry’s albino blond hair. Henry had thrown himself down on the seat, yelling, “Damn, damn. He’s gonna tell everybody about the car. My old lady’ll know it’s yours. Damn her. God damn her!”
On a Sunday morning in January, a few days before my mom’s release from the hospital, a gang of us sat naked atop a giant flat boulder in a desert oasis called Palm Canyon, a few miles out of Borrego Springs, a two-mile trek past the end of a dirt road. We were a fierce-looking crew—six sunburnt white boys, all but one with his head shaved. We’d shaved our heads because a coach had ordered Billy to get his shaggy hair mowed.
There’d been seven of us until a kid named Tom disappeared the night before. A half-hour into the trip we’d regretted taking him along. He’d criticized each of us, all the way over the mountains. In the desert he’d become a pyromaniac. After he pelted us with cherry bombs, we chased him off into the night.
Eric had brought along Zarathustra. Standing as though at a pulpit, he read a sermon about denying equality to the little people who cling to God and tradition. God has died, Nietzsche proclaimed. Hence, we supermen have been resurrected, to becoming the Lords.
A rumbling commenced. At first I thought it was a landslide. We scrappled off the boulder into the grotto beneath, just before a granite stone about three feet across crashed on the boulder and shattered into gravel.
On the hillside, Tom stood waving a crowbar we’d brought, laughing and prying loose another big stone. We tugged on our jeans, tied on shoes, and ran up the hillside, while he frantically rolled and slung rocks at us. Four of us circled around and behind him, possessed by such fury we might’ve stoned him to death. Except Eric and our friend Steve had gone straight up the hillside, risking their lives.
Later I heard Eric coaching Tom about how to give up hating himself. After we’d all returned to swilling beer on the flat-topped boulder, a party of rockhounds appeared. Dressed in lederhosen and caps with feathers, they stood gaping at us, from a hundred or so yards downstream. We lifted our arms, whooped savagely, and waved. They wheeled and scampered off.
When the hospital released my mom, she could hardly cook, wash dishes, or attempt disciplining me. Guilt was her only weapon.
“Suppose you’ve been drinking,” she said, “and a kid on a bicycle pulls out in front of you. If you kill him, how’s that going to feel?”
Weak as she was, she refused to sleep unless I got home. If I stayed out all night, she’d lie awake then nap in the daytime. To request help around the house, she’d gaze at the mess then flash me an evil eye. Or nag until I told her to lay off.
“Well, somebody has to remind you,” she’d snap. “You’re just like your grandma and your dad. Lost in space.”
Eric’s mother Sylvia was a large blonde with a pinched mouth and squinty, penetrating blue eyes. She wore muumuus and charged around the house. A unique and contrary mother, the opposite of most, she treated her son with great respect and the rest of us with very little. She didn’t baby Eric. Rather, from all I saw, he might’ve been the only human she considered her equal. But I rarely saw her with anyone except us, and Richard. Now and then I’d find her on the porch with a neighbor gossiping about a different neighbor, but the only ones who got inside her dark little house were Eric and his friends, and Richard. He was a jazz pianist about ten years younger than Sylvia, and half a foot shorter than either Eric or she. Just as Sylvia’s bluster made people wrongly suppose she was a drunk, Richard’s stupefied expression made me suspect he was a junkie.
Sylvia had a piano, the only treasure in a living room full of hand-me-down furniture. When Richard wasn’t plunking on it, weaving garrulous runs around the melodies of old standards, he gawked at the television, preferably at creatures from places like the Black Lagoon.
Sometimes Eric, Sylvia, and I discussed politics, religion, sex, or books. Lord of the Flies she called propaganda by which teachers could argue the superiority of adults. Catcher in the Rye she applauded because Holden Caulfield appreciated jazz and was nearly as cynical as herself. She dismissed Nietzsche as a syphilitic blowhard.
While we gabbed, Richard might eye us as though he had something to say. But the moment would pass, and he’d turn back to gawk at the shoot-’em-up. Though Richard was about halfway between our age and Sylvia, you might’ve thought he was the kid, Eric the partner. Sylvia ordered Richard to fetch her cigarettes, made him stand still while she straightened his tie, checked to see that he’d zipped all the way.
Observing Sylvia and Richard made us frequently recommit ourselves to becoming Supermen.
One Friday night, I arrived just as they were leaving for a jazz club. Before climbing into Richard’s car, Sylvia commanded me, “If you brought any liquor, Kenneth, go away.”
I agreed and waited until they drove off before scooping a pint of bourbon and a bottle of ginger ale out of my Chevrolet’s trunk. That evening more than most, I wanted to get numb. For about the tenth time, Karen Flagstad had rejected me, even though a few days before I’d warned her that if she wouldn’t join me at a movie Friday night, I planned to fast until death. She offered her condolences. To emotionally blackmail a smart girl like Karen, you’d have to be a better actor than I.
From breakfast Monday until late Wednesday afternoon, all I ingested were three beers and a Coke. Then I gobbled two jumbo hamburgers and spent the night consuming aspirins, with my head on two pillows because one alone felt hard as pavement. The next day I devoted to recovering.
After Spanish class on Friday, I vividly recounted my ordeal to Karen and explained that all my suffering certainly must’ve earned me her company Friday night. She congenially disagreed.
While Eric and I drank bourbon and ginger ale, I griped about Karen. At first I acted tough and unruffled, but soon the bourbon took hold, and I confessed the pain in my gut that had nothing to do with fasting.
He asked why I got so obsessed about Karen, knowing I never had pursued anybody so boldly. Anybody except Karen wanted a date with me, she’d better tell her friend to pass the word along, otherwise I wouldn’t even ask for a dance without having already gotten the nod.
Karen was blonde, with pink, full lips and plenty of curves, a perfectly compact body, lively unhaunted eyes. She read books and spoke softly, humbly, and acted just as nice to the lowly as to teachers or big shots. Besides, she was shy enough so that around her I felt less so. I was obsessed, like Eric said. Many hours I spent dreaming how she and I could run off to live in some woodland cottage.
Eric patted my head, which riled me. We finished the bourbon, then he offered to show me a wrestling hold he’d recently learned. He was on the wrestling team that year, second man in the 165-pound class and challenging the first man, who was part orangutan.
I outweighed Eric by 20 pounds, but he was stronger, faster. No matter in what position we started, at his pleasure and with maddening ease, he’d flip me over and pin me. Wondering why, after I spilled my guts, he’d revel in my further humiliation, I flew into a rage, sprang to my knees, and socked him in the stomach, pounced on top of him and socked him again, before he caught hold and flipped me, lashed my arm behind my back and shoved my face into the floor.
“Listen,” he said gently. “You’re not really mad at me. You’re mad at yourself, because you think you’re nobody, but you’ve got it all wrong. It doesn’t matter if I wrestle better. Wrestling’s my sport. What if you and I were playing golf or baseball and you clobbered one out of sight, but I hit this little dribbler, then started whining?
“If Karen doesn’t like you enough, that doesn’t matter either. Because you’re as great as anybody. You’re Ken Kuhlken, and that’s all you need to be. You don’t need to prove anything.”
When he let go, I jumped up, ran into the bathroom, and washed my face. I stared at the mirror. The sight of my vicious and perplexed expression amazed me. Though I couldn’t yet fathom how the simple fact that I was me, amongst all the billion people on earth, should give even a moment of solace, it did.
Shortly before Easter, my Aunt Woody took my mom for a Las Vegas weekend. Eric and I decided to join them. All night we sped across the desert, sipping Jim Beam. My mom and aunt were dressed for breakfast by the time we arrived, to their surprise and distress. I caught my mom whispering, “Is there anyplace on earth we can get away from our kids?”
They loaned us the room until evening. Room service delivered bourbon and ginger ale. Around noon, we adjourned to the pool, on the lookout for showgirls. The pool featured a high dive like the one at Carmen Ranch Club where Eric had worked the previous summer as an apprentice lifeguard and trampoline instructor. He climbed, sprang, and jackknifed, got a few cheers from spectators, including several showgirls.
Though I’d never faced a high dive before, I had ingested enough bourbon to make the feat look simple.
Inches from the end of the board was a depression full of water, on which my foot slipped. I tried to halt, but too late. The world spun sideways then upside down before I pinched my eyes closed. Later Eric told me I’d made a neat flip while careening into the pool, half conscious on account of my head had sharply nicked the board. I got more cheers than Eric had.
While he led me inside, I complained that he was dragging me away from the pool out of jealousy over my dive. He wetted a washcloth and dabbed the wound on my forehead until room service brought us each a double whiskey sour. Then I faded, knocked out by liquor or the diving board.
I awoke on the outskirts of heaven. Gazing across a chasm at the enchanted forest. The air resonated with music, clean and simple melodies, at once so ardent and tender, they could make a viper weep for joy. It might’ve been a dream. A premonition. For all I know, I might’ve briefly died. Anyway, the spell broke and left me sprawled in the Desert Inn. I lay still a while, sore all over, with a throbbing skull, wishing to go back there. Finally, I got up, swallowed a few aspirin, and roused Eric to tell him about heaven.
“I was on one side of a bottomless gorge, looking across at this forest of evergreens and fruit trees like I’ve never seen. The colors were so bright they looked lighted. The forest was on an endless slope — there wasn’t any horizon. And the music — each note contained all kinds of harmonies. The instruments sounded like giant bells, big as mountains, far away.”
Eric had sat up, staring excitedly. “Were you scared? What’s it feel like there?”
“You know when you’re away from home and no matter how great a time you’re having, there’s a little uneasiness, so when you get home there’s always relief? You unwind, your heart slows. That’s how it felt.”
He whispered, “You’re a lucky guy.”
At a College Avenue coffeehouse, we overheard people talking about Jack Kerouac. After reading two of his novels, Eric and I made the first of several pilgrimages to San Francisco. The minute school let out on Friday, we sped north on Highway 101. From Morro Bay to Santa Cruz, we followed the coast and made camp for the night just south of Big Sur. Saturday, midmorning, we landed in North Beach.
All day we shot pool at Mike’s, slouched in the catacombs of City Lights bookstore reading apocalyptic poems, roamed alleys and hills gawking and quoting lines we remembered, mostly about the atomic holocaust that would probably finish us. It was a favorite theme of the Beats, and their strongest rationale. Once it’s clear that any second a button gets pushed and kapow, not only you but your race is a goner — walloped by reality, spooked beyond reach of old customs and authority, our nature cries, “It’s out there somewhere, boy. Whatever it is. Go find it. Go!”
We overdosed on espresso, explored every street and alley of North Beach and Chinatown. I told Eric we were seeking two exquisite Cantonese girls who’d beseech us to steal them away from the rich devil who’d enslaved them. They’d snatch from the devil a suitcase full of gold and we’d speed off toward the forests of Idaho to live in dissolute passion until we had to Go!
Eric humored me. In North Beach, a couple of Finochio’s transvestite dancers waylaid us. We lounged under streetlamps and sat on curbs and fire hydrants, listening to their pitch about the glories of San Francisco. The museums, the opera, the food. They acted like gentlemen. Didn’t even ask us for a goodnight kiss.
On our way home Sunday night, I raved at Eric about prizes the world offered and how we could have them all. I boasted that with Kerouac’s guidance, we’d managed to cast off routine, outrun the sluggards and phonies, created our own destiny. We’d become Supermen.
Or at least we were speeding along the way. In one more year, when we got released from high school and were no longer branded juveniles, life would metamorphose into a banquet. But Eric mostly sat quiet. Near Santa Maria, he said, “You know what they say about there's no free lunch?”
“Suppose they’re right. Then who’s going to pay for the banquet, for all this freedom?”
Eric got his summer job back, lifeguarding at Carmen Ranch Club. On his days off, we hung out at La Jolla, and at Ocean Beach near the jetty, a few blocks from the cottage where he’d spent his first six years. While Eric worked, I helped Cliff and Billy Torrey and their dad rebuild a ’56 Thunderbird. Or my cousin Steve and I visited his sister Jill at her Pacific Beach apartment.
One Friday evening after plenty of beer, I invited somebody who reminded me of Karen Flagstad to join me for a cruise along Mission Boulevard, up to La Jolla. Her name was Kris. She would’ve, she said, if not for a babysitting job. After she left, I drank until midnight when Steve and I went cruising. We stopped at the Mission Boulevard Jack in the Box and found Kris there, in a Ford, hanging onto my cousin Jill’s boyfriend.
He was a tough guy about five years older than me. According to rumor, while fighting in the Golden Glove tournament, he’d knocked another light-heavyweight into a coma. An equally tough surfer rode shotgun. I strode toward their car. It must’ve been Kris’s disdainful look that enraged me. I jammed my head through the shotgun window. “You babysitting these guys?”
“It didn’t work out,” she said flatly. The surfer grabbed the door handle, but Jill’s boyfriend told him to leave me alone and motioned me around to his side of the car. After I’d staggered there, bumping both front fenders, and leaned down to glare at his face, he kept advising me to back off while I lashed him with a string of curses for two-timing my cousin and stealing my girl.
Steve walked up and muttered, “We’re gonna die.”
Knowing I had an ally emboldened me all the more. I wheeled and gave them notice that if Kris didn’t get out and come with me, I was going to pluck them both out of the car and so on.
Jill’s boyfriend sat rubbing his temples. Finally he reached for the handle, rolled up the window, started the car, and pulled away, while I kicked at his bumper, missing every time, yowling, “Chickenshits!”
The next morning I pulled to the curb on Garnet and crossed the street to a donut shop. It had a service window opening onto the sidewalk. A trio of boys about my age stood waiting their turn. But when they saw me, they jumped aside.
That whole summer while I struck terror into many hearts on account of I’d backed down two of P.B.’s toughest, I didn’t even have to bully anybody. At parties and the beach, there were always plenty of girls upset and spiteful toward their boyfriends, so they’d appear at my side in hopes the boyfriend would object and I’d thrash him.
At Carmen Ranch Club, Eric was on the trampoline, probably showing off for his friend Carol, when he soared too high and got distracted by something. He fell sideways, ricocheted off the side rail. He got scrapes and bruises all over. Carol took him to her place nearby. Her parents were gone. Whatever they did that afternoon, Eric wouldn’t say. Something went wrong, which sent him into a funk so deep, he gave up the job and asked did I want to go camping up the coast.
We borrowed a couple of surfboards, drove to San Onofre, and pitched a tent on the cliffs. Between our assaults on the surf and my efforts at charming a Mexican girl from L.A., I told Eric stories about my exploits in Pacific Beach. Though he got a chuckle over my status as top cat, he said, “I hope you know that’s not what being Superman’s about?”
“Aw, give me a little credit, will you?” I snapped, annoyed that he’d seen through me. My friend Kenny’s mother volunteered with a Tijuana charity project. Since June, four of us had been riding with her to Tijuana every Sunday to play a double-header for the project’s ball team.
The Liga Municipal Segunda Fuerza, held its games on a sandlot with a makeshift backstop and a couple of benches along each sideline, one for the players, one for the fans. Our teammates were mostly the older sons of squatter families whose homes, made of scraps of tin, wood, and cardboard, balanced precariously on ridges along the walls of the Cañon del Sol, which ran down off the mesa to the border.
Eddie and Kenny were swift outfielders who’d later play college ball. Bob would one day pitch for the Minnesota Twins. I led the team batting average. Our help made the Mexicans feel like champions. We placed first and got invited to the Primera Fuerza for the next round. Now our games were on Friday nights. Since Kenny’s mom didn’t care to deliver us, and since we weren’t yet 18, she helped us secure border-crossing passes, which we liberally abused in order to frequent what may’ve been the wildest, ugliest city on earth. I tripped over a dead person, saw women getting abused by Navy commanders and farm animals. If we got bored in the clubs, we might ride with a cabby to motels where prostitutes would greet us. We’d feel them up, barter, object to the price, and leave. Some cabbies, after three or four such stops, would stoically deliver us back downtown, while others would pull up beside a gang of thugs. Then we’d run for our lives.
The night Eric joined us, so did the biggest guy in our school. About 6'6", 280 pounds. We rode with a cabby to three motels. After the First, Eric said, “This is bad, Ken. I hate this.” At the second place, he gave the girl half his money, for nothing. We were leaving the third motel when he asked me, “Why do you do this?”
The big guy sat behind the driver. While the driver waited for an opening into the boulevard traffic, the big guy leaned up close and growled, “It’s a good thing you don’t plan to get us roughed up, or else I’d pinch your head off.”
The cabby muttered something in Spanish and made a face that seemed to say, “Go ahead, what do I care?”
At the Long Bar, Eric told me about all three prostitutes he’d met, where they came from, how large their families were, their entire 12-syllable names. He spoke as if they were years younger, our age, and he’d met them at a box social. And he kept asking, “What can we do?” As if our mission were to fix all the world’s broken people.
Eric was the fastest middle-distance runner in our school. I played good first base and was batting around .400 in Tijuana. But Eric and I had alienated some coaches. Me for quitting the baseball and football teams the year after my dad died. Eric for walking away from the wrestling team, after he’d lost a match and the coach had belittled him. So, until our sport came into season and we officially made the teams, we got denied privileges, like sixth-period gym and lockers.
Since Eric still wanted to work out and wouldn’t face the world without a shower afterward, he arranged with Cliff to share a locker. Besides running the mile during track season, Cliff was second man on the cross-country team, behind Gary Hafner.
A couple weeks after our dismissal, the head coach summoned Cliff to his office, sat him down, and asked him to explain why a new pair of sweats, just issued to Gary Hafner, had turned up missing and gotten found in Cliff s locker. Cliff maintained that he’d never even seen the sweats.
“It looks like Eric stole them,” the coach said.
“Eric doesn’t steal,” Cliff said adamantly.
Still, when the coach dropped him from the cross-country and track teams, Cliff got afflicted with anger and confusion, wondering if Eric might’ve been the thief after all. For a week or so, he seethed and Eric brooded darkly, ashamed even that Cliff would suspect him. They passed each other in the halls without a greeting. It took the end of the world to renew their friendship.
On a Friday night at my house we watched a movie called On the Beach. It began with a nuclear war. The human race died from north to south, until all that remained were some outposts in Australia, where foreign Navy ships had anchored. One by one the heroes expired, while the band played “Waltzing Matilda.”
Cliff asked if we’d go running with him on the cross-country course at Balboa Park, where the previous year he’d scored his only first-place finish. He wanted to run there one last time, before the end of the world.
We parked near the Morley Field ballparks and set off jogging through the dark canyons and oak groves, alongside the zoo where some tropical nightbirds hooted and the gibbons chattered as though outraged. I huffed and panted while they glided along, yet for 2.3 miles I managed to keep up and sing along with our chorus of “Waltzing Matilda.”
From then on, for us, to be on the beach meant something new. Besides tumbling through the waves, watching girls who filled us with trepidation and awe, dreaming of far places and freedom, it meant staring at the opaque sheen of eternity.
Though I continued to long for Karen Flagstad, I’d begun to roam. While serving as king of Pacific Beach, I’d dated a beauty who’d later become Miss something. Our last night we spent in the Surf and Sand Motel, to which a buddy of my cousin Steve had the master key. His mother owned the place.
A quart of Bulldog Ale got Miss something to the motel, where we figured how to do it, did it, and passed out. A few hours later, at dawn, I woke to her crying. Already dressed, she gave me a hasty kiss and rushed off. That night Steve called to pass along the news that my first conquest had slashed her wrist.
Gloria Valenciana, whom I’d met at San Onofre, was cheery, voluptuous, dark brown. Though most of her friends were in gangs and she talked cholo dialect, she was a good girl. She didn’t drink, smoke, or cut loose. Still, most Saturdays I drove up there, a hundred miles each way, feasted on her grandmother’s cooking, got scrutinized by her dad and brothers, took her to movies and smooched until her 1:00 a.m. curfew, then raced home so fast the sleepy cops along Highway 101 failed to notice the blur as I passed.
One night I rented a motel room and managed to lure Gloria there. My plan wasn’t to seduce her. If I did, she might kill herself, I feared. I only hoped to see and feel her naked beside me. But I couldn’t even coax her out of the brassiere.
What Gloria was willing to give finally began to seem unworthy of a 200-mile drive every Saturday. So I missed a couple weekends in a row. Then her old boyfriend returned on leave from the Marines. Gloria and I shouted at each other long-distance and parted.
Eric had girls phoning at all hours and tailing him in the halls. But if he even kissed one, he kept it secret. Still, he hung out with lots of girls. Among them were Maggie, Eric’s favorite on account of her brains and ingenuousness; Carol, who’d been his companion that summer at the ranch club; and Laura, a green-eyed blonde with freckles and a big heart.
In place of his study hall that year, Eric worked as an office monitor, picking up attendance sheets and delivering hall passes. Two of the three first-period office monitors were Eric and Laura. They might skip down the halls, holding hands and laughing. Or Laura would hold a classroom door open so Eric could swoop in with his arms extended like wings, softly humming a tune from Handel’s Messiah.
On Christmas, after the family party at my Aunt Evangeline’s place, Eric and I drove to Sunset Cliffs, near Fort Rosecrans where his dad was buried. We climbed and explored caves in twilight. After dark, we sat on the cliffs. Eric paced, finally sat down, and asked what I’d been thinking about my dad that day.
I told him how Christmas was always my dad’s favorite day, how the only plants he ever grew were poinsettias that he’d deliver to the family graves every Christmas morning after the presents got exchanged and breakfast was over. When I finished, Eric paced again, then squatted in front of the bench where I sat and gazed hard at me, as though wondering how far I could be trusted.
“There’s a big change coming,” he said. “I don’t know what. It’s something I feel so deeply, it’s like nothing ever before. Maybe it’ll be good. Maybe not. All I know is, soon everything’s going to be different.”
That year Karen Flagstad was a songleader. Her squad danced at basketball games. If I attended, she’d wave and smile at me. So one Friday night, after Eric, Kenny, Billy, and I drank a magnum of champagne on the pretense of celebrating Kenny’s parents’ divorce, which had gotten finalized that week, I suggested we visit the basketball game.
It was against our team’s rivals, Grossmont High School, in their gym, a building so ancient it had been there when my mother graduated. The double doors each featured a quartet of small windows. When the gatekeeper refused to let us in, Kenny raised a fist as though to sock the guy but instead punched out one of the panes.
Instantly we got surrounded, by teachers, a dean of students, and a platoon of the ROTC. With all the fuss, it took a while for witnesses to clarify which of us was the culprit and for the gatekeeper to accuse us of drinking. Kenny’d been staring at his bloody fist. When the dean tried to grab him, he bolted toward a stand of eucalyptus.
The entire posse chased after Kenny. His legs churned faster than the eye, like a propeller. The previous fall he’d broken our school record for the 50-yard dash. Billy, Eric, and I got the chance to run the other way toward the parking lot. Except when Billy and I took off, Eric didn’t budge. So we turned back. I commanded Eric to hurry. Billy asked him what was the matter.
Staring at his feet, kicking the dirt, Eric said, “I’m going to stay and take my punishment.”
“For what?” I demanded. “Kenny smashed the window.”
Billy said, “You stay here, they won’t catch Kenny and they’ll blame the whole thing on you, because you’re the one they’ve got. They’ll kick you out of school for good. They already know we’ve been drinking.”
Eric had picked up some dirt and was pouring it from one hand to the other. “I can’t run away,” he mumbled. A teacher strode toward us. Eric gripped my arm. “Get Billy out of here.”
I nudged Billy and we ran toward the parking lot, shouting over our shoulders for Eric to follow us. He kept shaking his head. At the entrance to the parking lot, we met friends in a getaway car. If Eric had joined us, it might’ve been a clean escape, since Kenny would probably hide out until the after-game crowd gave him cover, then circle back for his car. But the posse had already cornered him. The police booked Kenny for vandalism and reported him and Eric to the school board for having been intoxicated on school grounds. A few days later, Eric and Kenny got expelled.
The vice principal summoned Billy and me. She and everybody knew we’d been with Eric and Kenny, and just as intoxicated.
“So expel me,” I said.
“Me too,” Billy said.
But it didn’t work that way. The school board wouldn’t act unless the police had gotten involved. Otherwise, somebody’s parents might sue them.
Since Kenny’s dad was football coach at Coronado High School, he transferred there and would graduate, even bat leadoff on their baseball team. Eric walked over the hill from his house and became a lot boy at a Ford dealership.
The next couple of weeks, I only saw him on Sundays and when I stopped by his place in the evenings. I’d find him lying on his bed, reading. He’d listen to me as long as I wanted, but he didn’t care to talk much. Sometimes he’d muse about how this expulsion had transformed him, that he was learning what it meant to work full days, to budget money, and generally act responsible. Soon he’d enroll in adult school and complete his senior year, meanwhile saving all he could toward the date of his graduation when he’d go looking for some kind of apprentice white-collar job, maybe in another town. Probably San Francisco. Unless he got drafted.
The way he talked was eerie and distressing, as if he were leaving tomorrow and might never come home — he’d offer me advice and make me promise things, such as that I’d go straight to college, simply because a guy as smart as me ought to, he said, and it would please my mom, who could use some cheering after her sorrows. He reminded me how my talk of college made her glow. Besides, he didn’t want to see me get drafted. “You’d have a hell of a time in the service,” he said. “A teacher barks at you, it’s all you can do not to punch the guy. Think of what’d happen with a drill sergeant. You’d spend all your time locked up.”
Twice he made me promise to watch over Billy, to be like a big brother, since Billy wouldn’t have him anymore, even though I argued that he could still see Billy, that if he moved it wouldn’t be for months. “Besides,” I reminded him, “Billy’s got a real big brother.”
“Sure, but he’s not going to listen to Cliff. Anyway, Cliff won’t always be around.”
“Well, if everybody else is going someplace, who says I won’t?”
“I don’t think you will,” he said. “See, you believe you’re on your own, but you’re not. Your mom’s had it even rougher than you have, and you’re not going to leave her. Not for a couple years anyway.”
That evening when I dropped him off, he gave me a sweater and a stack of records — Thelonius Monk; Dave Brubeck with Jerry Mulligan; Lena Horne; Belafonte singing blues. Though it might be months before he could graduate, he said he was anxious to clean things out, to get prepared, ready to move.
On Valentine’s Day, 1963, I picked up Eric and we stopped at a liquor store we knew where the proprietor had more greed than scruples. Next to the cash register was a bucketful of small candy hearts, with slogans like, “I love you” and “Hey, sweetheart.” Eric preferred the one that read “Why not?” We sifted out a couple dozen of those, loaded them into our shirt pockets so we could pass one to any girl who looked like she didn’t get a valentine.
On Point Loma, in Fort Rosecrans, Eric’s dad’s grave lies in a clearing with no shrubs or trees nearby to mark the spot, yet even in the dark, Eric walked right to it. He knelt beside it. A foot west of the headstone, he dug out a piece of sod, dropped the candy heart underneath it, and replaced the sod.
Then we backtracked to Sunset Cliffs and sat with our legs hanging, about 50 feet above where the waves flooded over the tidepools. Once before in this spot, Eric had mused that whenever he died, he wanted his ashes scattered from here out to sea. Several times before Eric took a swallow of wine, he placed a candy heart on his tongue, chewed slowly, and washed it down with the wine.
“I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “The big change still hasn’t come, but it’s getting awfully close.”
“Hey, you already got kicked out of school, you’re working full-time and don’t much hang out with friends anymore. In a couple weeks you’ll start adult school. You hear that word? Adult. That’s got to be the big change. It’s about the biggest there is.”
“I wish it was. I mean, I shouldn’t — that’s just being a coward, to wish for things to stay like they are. We ought to get excited about changes. You, for instance — you ought to jump at the chance to go to Pepperdine. In Malibu, Ken. You could surf every day, get home in a couple hours if your mom needs you. But you don’t want to go.”
“Naw. If it was free. But I’m not going to let my mom pay. Look, when people pay for you, they own you. So what’re you guessing the real big change is going to be?”
He chewed a candy and sipped from the wine. “I don’t know. Maybe something great and happy or maybe it’ll be terrible. All I know is, it’ll make getting expelled and the rest look like kid stuff.”
The next day, according to Sylvia, he spent reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for the second straight time. For breaks, he returned to his spring cleaning. He loaded a garbage can with old board games and school papers and gave a couple of pairs of jeans to a neighbor boy. He even tossed out the charred and decrepit pan he’d been using to make popcorn since he’d grown tall enough to reach the stovetop. That evening, Saturday, when I called to ask if he wanted to go to the cut-rate movies or shoot pool with Billy and me, he was probably home. But Sylvia’d gone out with Richard, and nobody answered the phone.
Illustration of the crash
Billy spent the night at my place. We’d made plans for the next day. Billy and I, Eric, and Kenny were going to drive up the coast to Laguna Beach, to check out their sidewalk art festival. Sunday morning about nine, I phoned Kenny to tell him Billy was at my house and ask when he’d pick us up.
Things weren’t decided yet, he said, because a couple other guys wanted to go, except not to Laguna Beach. They wanted to drive to the desert, to the Indio Date Festival, which they claimed was a good party.
Billy and I didn’t thrill at the idea of six guys — including one who weighed 280 — riding 150 miles to the desert and back in Kenny’s mom’s Volkswagen. Still, I asked Kenny to call us when the plans were settled. He promised to. But he didn’t. Eric told him not to. Eric didn’t want Billy or me along, though he wouldn’t explain why.
That night on Viejas grade, the big guy was driving when they swerved off the road, down an embankment, onto a ledge. Eric flew out and smashed his head on a boulder.
First period Monday, I got called to the vice principal’s office. I knocked, stepped in, and found her slumped over her desk. She looked like a visitor to Auschwitz. “Sit down, Kenneth.” “What’d I do?”
“It’s about Eric.”
Studying her mournful eyes, I eased myself into the chair. “Yeah?”
“El Cajon Valley Hospital. They don’t believe he’ll make it.”
My brain catapulted through space, into a black hole. There I remembered the night my mom checked into the hospital and the doctor said she was probably a goner. “He’ll make it,” I muttered. “Does Billy know?”
“I sent a pass for Billy and Cliff. They should be on their way.”
The others in the car hadn’t gotten scratched, she said, and waited for an assurance that I’d be okay. I told her I’d go meet Billy and Cliff. Knowing which way they’d walk to the office from their auto shop class, around behind the football field where they could have a smoke on the way, I took that route to the shop buildings. The teacher was engaged with a carburetor and didn’t notice me trespassing. I found Billy and Cliff wearing goggles, huddled over the head to a Chevy, grinding the valves. They’d figured the vice principal could wait.
They had one more valve to grind. Then we stepped out into the sunlight. While I gave them the news, Cliff kicked gravel with both feet. Billy stared at the sky. His chin quivered.
There was a college boy who guarded the parking lot. We had to get a note from the office before he’d unlock the gate and let us out. My gas gauge read empty, and between us we hadn’t enough change to finance the trip to the hospital, which was almost to the mountains. So we drove to Cliff and Billy’s house to bum gas money. Their mom called the hospital, learned that Eric was in the operating room, and that no visitors would see him that day. She tried to feed and comfort us. After those attempts failed, she gave us ten dollars and a shopping list. While we staggered through the aisles at the grocery store and later drove up Mount Helix and paced around the cross in the mountaintop park, staring all around at Mexico, the Pacific, and the Laguna Mountains, every few minutes one of us would offer a reason why Eric couldn’t possibly die. He was the strongest person we knew. Only 17. People needed him. We needed him. He was Superman.
Around noon, I mentioned how stricken the vice principal had looked. Billy suggested we ought to tell her that Eric hadn’t blamed her for expelling him. We parked out front of the school, climbed the steps, and had just turned the corner to the hall in front of the office building, when a girl ran out of the office sobbing hysterically. She might’ve known Eric, but not well. Still, when she spotted us, she ran up and clutched one of my hands and one of Cliff’s. She blubbered a minute and finally spat out, “Eric’s dead.”
Suddenly there were people converging on us from everywhere, purposefully, as if grief were cash they could extort from us. I broke loose from the girl and hustled into the nearest classroom building, into the restroom. I leaned onto the sink and glared at the mirror, where my flesh seemed to peel and shred. I kicked the wall and howled. Soon a teacher came rushing in, a large Spaniard who’d given me plenty of office referrals for failing to shave or wearing a shirt with tails out. This time, when he ordered me to the office, I blasted him with a string of curses that might’ve convinced him he should’ve sent me to an exorcist rather than to the front office. Then I dodged him and hustled back out to where Cliff and Billy leaned against the office wall, surrounded by tragedy groupies.
The three of us escaped around the office building, down the front steps to the street, where we ran into Laura. Though in four years she’d become my wife, I hardly knew her and didn’t realize it was her birthday. She asked me to sit on the grass for a minute. Staring across the ball fields, she said, “Just last week he promised that for my birthday he was going to give me a very special present, only I wouldn’t understand it for a long, long time. So he goes and dies on my birthday. I don’t get it.” Neither did I. She hugged me stiffly, then we parted and went our own ways.
A few minutes later, I stumbled into my mom’s classroom at La Mesa Junior High School, while Billy and Cliff waited in my car. My mom was lecturing about prepositions. After a minute, she issued a reading assignment, followed me to a patio behind her room, and collapsed onto the picnic bench when I told her Eric was dead. “Oh God,” she moaned. “Not again.”
Cliff, Billy, and I drove to their place. We spent an hour or so on an art project they’d been creating. They were going to draw a million small circles, just to see what a million looked like. Taking turns, we drew about 20,000. Their mother kept appearing, offering food. My mom called several times and asked trivial questions.
Sometime before dark I went wandering, toward and up a hill called Eastridge, along a street of vacant lots, sometimes lost in my usual obsessions about Karen Flagstad or whether I should play baseball or golf that spring. Suddenly I’d remember. My gut felt as if a large snake coiled inside it. My heart was a giant lump of coal. I walked faster and groaned. Wondered why I couldn’t weep. Thought how Eric was ten times the human I’d ever be. If he couldn’t become Superman, my chances equaled zero.